Jake Adelstein: Gaijin Justice



Did you see the story on "Sixty Minutes" about the Japanese mafia? The Yakuza is one of the most powerful organized crime syndicates in the world. It is Japan's relatively overt version of the Mafia, with 85,000 members who trace their roots back to 17th century Samurai warriors. Perhaps you noticed that the expert on yakuza, a reporter for the Yomiuri Shimbum, Japan's largest newspaper, is an American. Jake Adelstein, is in fact the ONLY American journalist ever to have been admitted to the insular Tokyo Metropolitan Police press club. His reporting led to a remarkable story that launched the "Sixty Minutes" report outlining how a Japanese mobster was able to travel to the US and get a liver transplant at UCLA Medical Center.

I met with Adelstein last week as he was promoting the book he wrote about his experience Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan .

What fascinated me, someone who lived briefly in Japan as an eager undergrad more willing than able to penetrate the insular culture and mind boggling language, was how Adelstein overcame that powerful linguistic barrier that acts to separate the gaijin (literally outsider) from the real Japan.

CS: You really gloss over the language acquisition aspect of your training. To speak and especially to read Japanese is no small feat.
JA: That's why the Jesuits called it "the devil's language." In fact, I don't have a knack for language, my Cantonese teacher quit on me saying something Confucian like "you hear but you do not listen." And Japanese is perfect for the tone deaf. [At Sophia University] I was a Japanese literature major but I read lots of comics for children; you absorb a lot of Japanese that way.

How often did you play the gaijin card in your investigative reporting and in dealing with the notoriously impenetrable Tokyo police?

First of all, no one is ever mistaking you for a Japanese. Most times they assume you are clueless which is very convenient. When you are on the spot your Japanese comprehension drops to nothing. Early on you can get away with crossing the "do not cross" line so you could walk into a crime scene. The other advantage is people over explain; they say more than they need to because they are not sure you understand and worry you will not write it up properly. The expectation is that you are mentally disabled and they will explain something at great length.

When you dared yourself to apply for a reporter job at the prestigious Yomiuri Shimbun and then actually got it, was your mindset that this was going to be your job for life or were you going to take it year by year?

I was definitely thinking I've got this job for life and it's a great opportunity to learn about Japan and at the Yomiuri you supposedly never get fired. It's a very powerful publication with 14 million readers a day. They are more than a newspaper corporation, they are an empire; they own their own baseball team, a publishing company, a TV station, even some rest homes, so you can live your whole life there.

So why did you end up leaving?
One of my colleagues committed suicide because they bumped her to personnel saying she wasn't toeing the party line and she'd never work as a reporter again After she killed herself I felt a little disillusioned. Then, although I like the competition and adrenaline of the police beat, I was tired all the time, smoking too much, drinking too much and it just seemed time to go, I don't want to burn out or have liver failure. The lifespan of a Japanese reporter is short --by 40 or 41 you go on to manage the new reporters. So you want to leave on a big note-- with that big scoop--and I had a story I had been working on since 2003--

What is it with scoops? It seems like it's the golden ring of Japanese print journalism. The quest for the scoop is a major theme of your reporter years. That seems so old-school. Also, I have to wonder if in this digital age of instant news updates does anyone really notice who got what first?
It's like 1940s movies, I know. But it's what we live for --it comes from the fact that in a city like Tokyo there are five papers and the competition is fierce. I've pointed out in moments of rationality that readers don't care and certainly no one is comparing the papers, but the people who are running the paper still are.

Back to your personal scoop: Tadamasa Goto, the notorious gangster, who you discovered had had a liver transplant at UCLA.

My guess was that he had bribed a customs official or had a fake passport to get into the US. I called UCLA to confirm my story and right away I got a call from a source within the Goto-gumi (faction) saying "you need to have a meeting immediately, in fact you have three hours" and when I asked what would happen if I didn't go he said " oh, you'll be dead by the weekend." And he said it so matter-of-factly.

The conversation with the gangsters that ensued is the opening of your book. There is some vague mention of "erasing" you if you don't "erase" the story.
They are very good at extortion and threats that can not be prosecuted as threats. When they say it in a nice calm manner you almost wonder if you understood correctly. [Ultimately] the conclusion was that I could not write the story I was hoping. It was only after I quit and had taken on a State Department project on human trafficking research that I found out that he not only got the transplant, but three other yakkuza got transplants at UCLA as well. This came from a data leak in 2007--a detective downloading porn onto a government issued computer without knowing it had marked all the organized crime files to be uploaded to Japan's indigenous filing network-- so I called a hacker friend to download it for me. When I went through the two or three gigabytes of files about the Goto-gumi, including travels overseas and travel companions, I knew then that the FBI had let him in.

You eventually decided to go with the story and publish it in English in the Washington Post, and then in book form. Were you sure this was right thing to do? Are you still sure?

I can sort of watch my life disintegrate as I re-read this book, but I'm glad I wrote it. It was cathartic in a sense. Everything I know about Japan and all of the stupid mistakes I've made in my life are in that book, so I'm glad I finished it . Then [last] October I went to an old source who didn't have pleasant things to say.

Well in September I finished this [book] for a Japanese publisher (to be published in English) and before that came out I wrote a chapter in an anthology called "The Taboo Stories of Japan 2008." This chapter was about Tadamasa Goto and reaction to this book in the yakuza world was hot and heavy. It was a calculated risk on my part and it was tremendously successful. I also heard from booksellers that yakuza were buying all the copies within Tokyo as it was embarrassing for them to have this in print.

That's one way to have a best seller...
But then my publisher hears about this trouble and hired someone to do a risk assessment which found that if you publish this book your office will be firebombed, you will be kidnapped, and you will have to hire security guards 24/7. So my publisher in Japan immediately dropped the book. But by October 14, Goto was kicked out of the Goto-gumi. It was a great thing for me and without an organization behind him he's not as scary. And now that he's a Buddhist monk and he's living his life in peace and tolerance (more on this in Part 2 of our interview), I'm going over everything and I have this feeling that some people feeding me information were using me as a proxy. His people attacked civilians and gave authorities reasons to put harsher laws on the books so some blame him for that; other people felt he had too much money and power, so for them I was probably a convenient tool. l don't know how much I dug up on my own and how much was the result of power struggles which is actually very annoying.

Also before the Post article I went to a member of a rival faction and said I'm going to write this article would you like to comment?" He thumbed through it and [said] "we are grateful for this information and we don't want to comment and actually prefer to keep it internally." Then they offered me $300K not to publish. I hesitated and he thought I was asking for more money so he said, "you'd have to set up another bank account and it will take another 2 days, but we can get you a half million!" But I don't want to be owned by these people for the rest of my life. So I said no. I think it worked out very well for all of us.

Coming up in PART 2: A vicious mob boss (with a new liver) enters a Buddhist monastery but will it shield him from the legal, let alone kharmic, repercussions of his life of crime? And more on human trafficking--Japanese style.